Fast, cheap and out of a bowl

Tango Café & Restaurant

6880 65th St.
Sacramento, CA 95828

(916) 399-9868

Tango Café is, in a word, perplexing. Despite the name, it’s Vietnamese, not Argentinean; its décor indicates a certain level of fanciness, but blaring TVs and electronic games do not; the food’s pretty tasty, but there was hardly anybody in the place. In fact, our server was friendly and welcoming enough, but somehow seemed downright surprised to see us at 7 p.m. on a Thursday night, even though the menu says the restaurant is open until 10 p.m. nightly.

I think it might be more of a lunch or breakfast spot—or maybe a “drop in and hang out for the morning/afternoon” spot—despite the polished woods of the furniture and the menu’s mild pretensions: to wit, quotations (from whom is unclear) like “Vietnamese fare gets fine diplomatic treatment in a stylish, appealing setting” or (less promisingly) “Food for the starving artist.”

Certainly, the food is well-priced. Three of us got out of there for well under $40, and we had plenty to eat. And there’s a lot to choose from. The one Vietnamese standard you won’t find, though, is pho, at least not regular beef pho: there’s pho ga (chicken and rice-noodle soup) and variations on noodle soup—spicy, with wontons, with chicken curry, and so on—but not beef. The menu is, however, rich in caramelized and clay-pot dishes, plus rice porridge, rice plates, noodle salad bowls, stir-fries that include frog and goat, and several salads. It was a bit late for coffee or smoothies on our visit, but there’s also a wide range of drinks and shakes: Vietnamese iced coffee, various slightly exotic juices (pennywort, plum pickle) and shakes like jackfruit and “tropical ambrosia.”

Spring rolls and egg rolls were our choices for an appetizer, and we went for the (fried) latter. They arrived freshly fried and mouth-burningly hot, with a pale, porky filling. I found the wheat wrappers a tiny bit greasy, but still very crisp. The filling was savory and rich, but could have used a little more pepper or something else for bite. They were enlivened, though, with fresh mint, wavily cut pickled carrots, and the usual mild fish-sauce-and-chili blend for dipping.

Next up, we shared a bowl of that chicken soup; it was a cold, rainy night, and the hot broth, with its scent of anise and cinnamon, was comforting, if a little lacking in body. I liked the tangle of soft noodles, but the chicken itself was bland. (Fresh herbs, particularly leaves of aromatic Thai basil, came to the rescue.)

Given the chill of the evening, we moved on to some warm dishes—even though salads like green papaya, shrimp and pork or beef and lime sounded tasty. (I was a little scared, I confess, by “pork internal salad.”) I was quite taken with the chicken with lemongrass and rice in a clay pot. The chicken was strongly redolent of citrusy lemongrass, while the almost gritty crunch of the finely minced herb added a textural contrast to the tender poultry. Throughout the rice, crisp fried shallots brought their distinctive mild oniony flavor. All of this was folded into a hearty pot of warm rice—crunchy and slightly golden where it had come into contact with the hot clay pot, but fluffy and nicely cooked in the interior.

We also had a dish of pork ribs in caramelized sauce. They were really small riblets, chopped into pieces an inch or so long, with plenty of cartilage and bone hanging around in the little pieces—good for gnawing, if that’s what you like to do. Though several of the ribs were plump and fresh-flavored, some of the meat was a little stringy and tough, and tasted just a touch old.

The sauce was strong and delicious over rice, with a bitter-caramel edge and plenty of salty-savory fish sauce to balance out any sweetness from its dose of sugar. Even after I thought I was full, I kept ladling just a little of that sauce over just a little more rice, and nibbling away at the couple of ribs we had left.

Though some of the food might lend itself to lingering and picking, the atmosphere on our visit really didn’t. While we were there, the only other party was watching a football game (at top volume), and I thought they might have been friends of the restaurateurs; the staff started cleaning up the restaurant around us, bringing in and stacking the chairs from outside, and generally giving our party some none-too-subtle hints that it was time to move on. It all just seemed a little, well, odd: The sleekish décor was sending one message, but the staff (and the presence of those video-gambling games) was sending another. The food’s pretty tasty, but with so many other Vietnamese options near Tango Café (it’s in the big Pacific Rim shopping center at 65th and Stockton), the restaurant may have to try a little harder to set itself apart.